Berlin Safari

Nostalgia for East Germany becomes hip

By: Anne Burke

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Visitors to Berlin can rent the East
German-made Trabi for a nostalgic ride.
The last thing I generally want to do in a strange city is get behind the wheel of a car and navigate unfamiliar streets. But this sounded like too much fun. For less than the cost of a tank of gas, I could tool around the streets of Berlin in a Trabant, the plastic-bodied rattletrap of a car manufactured in East Germany from the late 1950s until the Wall came down.

Powered by a unique smoke-belching, two-stroke engine, the “Trabi” spits and sputters like an old jalopy; her gearshift knob trembles as if stricken with a bad case of the DTs. The back seat is so cramped that a tall passenger must sit splay-legged and hunch down so as not to bump his head.

The Trabi has no fuel gauge, so the only way to find out how much petrol remains is to lower a dipstick into the gas tank. Once rubber hits the road, der Trabi shows herself to be in no hurry; her 26-horsepower engine takes a full 21 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph.

Despite or perhaps because of her considerable shortcomings, the Trabi is much beloved. In Germany and beyond, this clumsy-looking Communist-era relic has spawned aficionados’ clubs, meet-up events and Web sites brimming with affectionate tributes and even insider jokes: “What do you call a Trabi on a mountain? A miracle.” Or, “How do you double the value of a Trabi? Fill ’er up.”

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The Trabi’s popularity is part of the phenomenon called ostalgie, the German word for nostalgia for East Germany. Deutschlanders are embracing anew products like Vita Cola, a Coca Cola knock-off, and Spreewald Gherkins, the pickles that figured prominently in the hit ostalgie film, “Good Bye Lenin!”

Last year saw the opening of the DDR Museum in Berlin, where visitors can learn about daily life as lived by ordinary East Germans. Set in an appropriately drab, concrete-slab building on the Spree River, the museum features a faithful reproduction of a government-allocated flat, the blue jeans that served as inferior substitutes for costly, black-market Levis, and a creme-colored Trabant 601 that visitors are welcome to crawl into.

While the dark side of life in the German Democratic Republic is represented by a display of Stasi surveillance equipment, most visitors leave the museum with a new appreciation for how East Germans lived, laughed and loved, even under the iron fist of a repressive regime. Particularly memorable is the corner of the museum devoted to nudist culture in the GDR.

Berlin has no shortage of exhibits that lay bare all the the grim details of 20th-century history. On a recent visit, I took in several: the Holocaust Memorial’s somber field of gray, stone slabs; the Topography of Terror’s exposition on Nazi repression and annihilation; and the Berlin Wall Memorial’s sad tribute to those who died trying to escape to the West.

Later, I jumped in a taxi for the short ride to Checkpoint Charlie, where I would meet up with a tour operator called Trabi Safari, which makes it possible for visitors to experience Berlin and Dresden from behind the wheel of one of the most enduring symbols of East Germany.

We would be a caravan of seven brightly colored Trabis. I slid into a yellow, 1980’s model with new vinyl upholstery and 90,000 miles on the odometer. After a quick briefing on the somewhat confusing gearshift pattern and a cheerful send-off from my young instructor, I was ready to roll. I depressed the clutch, fumbled my way into first gear, and lurched into the lane of traffic behind a purple Trabi crammed with four Munich engineers in town for a conference.

As our caravan snaked past Berlin’s big sights, Johann, our guide, provided running commentary (in German and English) from his vantage point in the lead car. I listened via a crackly-sounding, dashboard-mounted radio. At each stoplight, the car shuddered a few times as if to stall out, but even after 90 minutes, my trusty Trabi never let me down.


DDR Museum
Admission: $7

German National Tourist Board

Trabi Safari
$ 50 per person for party of two; $35 per person for party of four.Commission: 10 percent